TOWN’S fans didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as 11 minutes of madness cost them their FA Cup hopes.
Sure, the result was a bitter disappointment after Gerry Murphy’s rejigged and rejuvenated side led 3-1 with 79 minutes on the clock.
But the manner in which they put League II Vale under the cosh for long spells with a brand of bright, attacking, passing football warmed the heart and rekindled belief of better things to come in the rest of the campaign.
Town, perhaps, got a bit too cocky because they were playing so well – and they paid a heavy price for not killing off visitors who rarely threatened to soil Matt Glennon’s gloves let alone cause an upset.
Only three clean sheets in the 19 competitive outings so far tells its own story, however, and the lesson of Saturday’s closing minutes is that Town have got to know when simply to batten down the hatches and protect what they’ve already achieved.
The reaction of Vale caretaker boss Dean Glover said it all.
"I’m elated we’ve won because we were never in the game," he remarked.
"Somehow we’ve dug in at the death and turned it around. Unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it.
"I’m sure some of our supporters went home when we were 3-1 down and I was wishing I was on the bus with them, because I thought it was going to be four, five or six.
"I changed from 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 and then to 4-4-2, and sent on all three subs to try and stop people running through us, but what Gerry did with the Huddersfield team – their formation and personnel – looked very comfortable and very impressive and that’s how cruel football can be."
Cruel indeed, although it’s only right to point out that Town suffered because they were again not clinical enough in front of goal and too generous at the back, where a 3-1 lead with 11 minutes to go merits booting the ball into Row Z on occasion.
That Town continued trying to play rather than go down that route allowed Vale to register four goals from only five shots in the match and left the Town squad simply shell-shocked as they start preparations for Saturday’s derby at Leeds.
Murphy employed a sweeper in Joe Skarz to try and give cover to centre-backs Nathan Clarke and Andy Butler, but it was a careless backpass by Skarz (given no warning by his colleagues) which presented Louis Dodds with the opening goal on 27 minutes.
Town responded in terrific style, however, with Michael Collins – who had started only one of the previous 11 matches under Stan Ternent – at the hub of several attractive moves with his late runs from deep.
Vale simply couldn’t handle him – or the effervescent Gary Roberts – and when Collins rammed home the equaliser a minute before the break from a Roberts cross, it was no more than he deserved for a performance bristling with enterprise and skill.
Collins sprinted back to the dug-outs to celebrate with his mate Malvin Kamara – another frozen out in the Ternent reign – and there were further joyous scenes just five minutes into the second period when Ian Craney, who also had a fine match, drove Town into the lead with a fierce 15-yard shot for his fifth goal of the season.
It prompted the best football seen from Town all season, with Jim Goodwin a reliable anchor and gilt-edged contributions from skipper Andy Holdsworth and the hungry midfielders, and when Robbie Williams rose to head home a Roberts corner on 65 minutes, Town’s name was already being pencilled into the second-round draw.
Collins had a great chance to extend the lead when racing through and Vale rarely had the ball as they chased shadows for most of the time – but then it all changed.
First Andy Butler – who earlier had an effort cleared from the Vale line by Dave Brammer – dallied on a clearance and, while he appeared to be fouled by Dave Howland, referee Graham Salisbury allowed play to go on and the midfielder scored with an exquisite chip.
Six minutes later, a long diagonal ball caught Holdsworth and Clarke pushing too far up and the dangerous Dodds cracked in the equaliser.
Everyone’s thoughts turned to a replay at Vale Park, but worse was to come and there was a general sense of shock and disbelief when skipper Marc Richards curled in the winner for Vale with a 20-yard free-kick in the third minute of stoppage time.
It was a harsh lesson for Town, who have still to win back-to-back fixtures all season, but maybe those green shoots of football recovery will blossom and bear the fruit of better results in the run-up to Christmas.